Big Game James: Better than you think?

Gabe Kapler

Gabe Kapler

James Shields might not have compiled the same sexy power numbers as Max Scherzer and Jon Lester, but as all three head into free agency after this season, he deserves to be standing on the same platform.


A Cali boy with the laid-back style to match, Shields recently moved to San Diego. He digs the energy of the place, telling me, “The pace is nice and slow. Nobody’s rushing. People are cool, like ‘You go ahead.’” That also sums up his take on being one of three choice cuts of meat in a protein-starved crop of free-agent pitchers. The New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs might all be hunting for an Opening Day starter this winter.

Shields has pitched 1,855 career innings and earned nearly $40 million playing baseball. He has baked his career cake. Everything from here on out, both stats and salary, is frosting. He can cruise, SoCal style, into free agency. He is confident in his footing as both a man and a pitcher. With that healthy frame of mind, he aims to dominate every time he strolls out to the mound.

Since 2012, he is neck and neck with Lester in FIP (Shields 3.54, Lester 3.47), and FIP is a better predictor of future success than ERA. Scherzer’s (2.95) is more impressive, but if you’d like more track record and go back a year, the numbers get even closer. Let’s just agree that we’re in the same ballpark.

Don’t let Shields' Antelope Valley drawl fool you. He is a fiery competitor. Playing behind him for several years, watching him work both on and off the field, I was dazzled by his consistency. We try to quantify leadership and makeup, but there isn’t a dependable equation. We know that Shields is perpetually demanding the baseball. Like the most respected men in every clubhouse, he never wants to relinquish the rock. He knows the value of sparing an extraordinary group of Royals relievers a few innings, and he despises passing the baton.

That intense desire to finish what he starts has led him to complete 22 games in 277 starts. He has logged more innings than any other pitcher in MLB since 2012, spending not a single day on the disabled list. Sure, you can shy away from the wear and tear, or you can marvel at his insane durability. Based on my own anecdotal evidence, I choose imperishability.

That durability and confidence didn’t come out of nowhere. If you traveled back to his early days in the old Devil Rays uniforms, you would encounter a much more excitable, emotional man. You might see him occasionally show up a teammate after an error, or throw his hands in the air in disgust after an unlucky bounce. He was volatile.

That’s not the man I stood shoulder to shoulder with in Tampa Bay, and between 2009 and '10, he became even more self-assured. His actions were more tranquil, as he seemed unphased by happenstances. Now I point young pitchers in his direction: “Watch the countenance, the self-trust, the breathing.”

His self-assured mound presence is hard-won, as the tree-trunk legs might indicate. He is devoted to his work in the pen and the weight room. I used to marvel at the weight stacks on the leg sled at the Tropicana Field workout facility. Some guys are blessed with it, others have to put in considerably more effort to land and stay on top. The latter learn to be pliable.

Dave Cameron posted this on July 21: “It might be a tough pill for the Royals to swallow, given where they were just a month ago, but the right move for the Royals franchise is to put Shields on the market and play for 2015.”

I have a sneaking suspicion that K.C. fans are today happy they still have their best pitcher. Cameron went on: “The odds of the Royals re-signing Shields this winter are slim. Realistically, given their payroll, they shouldn’t even really be that interested in keeping him for his decline years.”

Now we come to the crux of the story. The recent track record of pitchers signed in their 30s isn’t pretty. Shields will be the exception. I never neared the level of his success, but I extended my own career through proper care and a strong mind. My best seasons came late in my career in 2008 and 2009. James is resourceful enough to stay at the top of his game for many years to come.

Pitchers often lose velocity as they age. Power pitchers, in particular, typically struggle with adjusting to life with a few less ticks on their fastball. This year, Shields’ four-seam fastball sits at 93.79 mph. If that trends down, he’ll be fine. In 2007, his average velocity was 91.95 mph, low compared to the rest of his career. He also posted his second-best BB% and WHIP, along with a better-than-career-average K%. If his fastball takes a hit, he can rely on finesse, command and movement and still be successful. After all, his out pitch is a changeup.

“Best camby in the game,” Shields would say with a smile. One of his many invented vocabulary words, "camby" is shortened from cambio, Spanish slang for a changeup. When it’s working for him, it is fall-off-the-table nasty.

When a pitcher has a true out pitch, the one he can go to at any point, some question the reliance. From Royalsreview.com on July 3:

“Shields' best pitch is supposed to be the changeup. It's consistently been ranked very well compared to other changeups by FanGraphs' pitch weight values. But, now, the changeup is in its second straight year of declining usage. If Shields is using his best pitch less, is it possible that it's not as good anymore?”

It’s possible, but Shields has a different take. “Every year I go through a six- or eight-game stretch where I haven’t changed anything mechanically but my stuff isn’t as crisp," he told me. "I’m doing the same thing I always do. It’s all part of the ups and downs of the season.”

During those ebbs and flows of the season, he leans more on his cutter and sinker. Of course, since that Royals Review post, Shields hasn’t had to worry about much; he’s been exceptionally lucky. Opposing hitters have a BABIP against him of just .191 in August. But he is absolutely pounding the strike zone, with a 2.4 walk percentage.

No matter the curveballs thrown his way, he’s managed to succeed at a remarkably high level. If I’m an owner or a GM, I see dependability in Shields. My stress levels are greatly reduced knowing that he can thrive with both a loss of velocity and less crispy secondary pitches. I sleep better trusting the idea that while I may not have the James Shields of 2014 in five years, I will have a healthy, competitive body based on his track record.

This argument might be an outlier, but it’s not unique. Mike Mussina piled up 1,768 innings between 1991 and 1999, prior to his age-30 season. He then put up four consecutive years of 200 plus innings and posted 24 fWAR during that span. He wasn’t the flamethrower of his day, just like Shields might not have the pure stuff of say, Scherzer. Moose’s career K-percentage was 19, walk percentage 5.4. Shields sits today with a career K-percentage of 20.6, with a 5.8 walk percentage.

I get that Mussina and Shields are not apples and apples. I’m simply encouraging us to dig this decline thing with a new shovel.

The unheralded member of the trio of free-agent starters, Shields won’t get the contract that Scherzer or Lester will. His lack of power, stuff and youth will (and should) be factored into his next contract. I believe, however, that Shields will deliver five years of performance that match up quite nicely with those other two. Whichever GM pulls the trigger will be happy he did.


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